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Canada's Finance Minister Bill Morneau delivers the Fall Economic Statement in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, November 1, 2016. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
Canada's Finance Minister Bill Morneau delivers the Fall Economic Statement in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, November 1, 2016. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Ottawa vows to end secrecy around House spending body Add to ...

The federal government is promising yet again to open up the secretive body that oversees $463-million a year in House of Commons spending and administration, with legislation to make most meetings public expected to be introduced by early next year.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s fall fiscal update also includes a pledge to make government spending more accountable by better reconciling its two main financial planning documents: estimates, and the federal budget.

Mr. Morneau’s fiscal plan, presented to Parliament on Tuesday, includes a brief promise to introduce measures “to bring to an end the secrecy” of the Board of Internal Economy, a seven-member body that makes decisions on the finances and administration of the House of Commons – including budgets for Members of Parliament. The board currently consists of three Liberals, two Conservatives and one NDP MP, and is chaired by Liberal Speaker Geoff Regan.

Read more: Liberals bet on infrastructure money with new bank as economy weakens

“The government intends to make the board’s meetings open by default, and in all but exceptional cases involving sensitive or personal information, business of the Board of Internal Economy will be made public,” Mr. Morneau’s fall economic statement said. An official with knowledge of the plan said the legislation is expected by early next year.

The Liberals have already made the pledge to open up the board several times, including in their election platform, and in the mandate letters to House Leader Bardish Chagger and her predecessor, Dominic LeBlanc. Before he was Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau introduced a private member’s bill on the subject in 2014, but it was defeated in 2015 before the federal election. The Senate already holds some of its meetings in the open.

The House of Commons internal-economy meetings, all held behind closed doors, are later summarized in meeting minutes. Topics include everything from benefits to security to harassment policy.

Conservative whip Gordon Brown, one of the board’s members, said he supports the idea of opening up the meetings in theory but is waiting to hear more details from the government, including how personal and other sensitive matters will be kept private. “I’m really waiting on seeing how they plan on doing this,” he said.

NDP House Leader Murray Rankin, who also sits on the board, said the government has been promising to make the change for the past year.

“It’s now been over a year since the election, and we’ve had over 100 sitting days [in Parliament]. So when are they going to move from promise to action?” he said.

“I think people are very skeptical about the way in which … hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars are spent, with not the kind of accountability that applies in other parts of public finance.”

Mr. Morneau’s fiscal update also lays out the government’s plan for greater clarity on government spending, by changing how and when estimates are scrutinized by parliamentarians so they can more easily be compared with numbers in the federal budget.

“Parliament’s current system of financial accountability is confusing and provides insufficient information to parliamentarians and Canadians,” the update said.

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